Is It Hoarding, Collecting, or Archiving? Keep? Toss?

Gina Barreca wrote . . . . . . . . .

“Let me know when you write a column about people who keep EVERYTHING just in case they ever need it…but never do,” asked James Lattin, a friend from college. “Baseball cards? Still got ‘em. Old letters from friends and family? Check. Treasured albums on vinyl? But of course! Papers written in elementary school? The only one I remember is still in my possession. And yes, the extra screw that came in the furniture assembly kit that looked like it might come in handy one day–I’ve still got that, too.”

“Just in case” might be the most tempting phrase when it comes to keeping things we don’t need; it’s the equivalent of an alcoholic’s “just one more” or an unfaithful partner’s “just this once.” It’s the enabling mantra, a version of a permission slip, or an emotional hall-pass.

Other mantras are effective, if not quite as seductive. These include but are not limited to: “There’s nothing wrong with that”; “That’s practically new”; “But look what it can do!”; “They don’t make these anymore.”

Creative, smart, and curious readers and friends wrote to me after my previous post on what items we decide to keep, what we decide to give or throw away, and what our emotional responses are to those choices.

Writer, speaker, and scholar Nancy Bocksor wrote to me directly, telling me that “Cleaning out my mom’s house was emotionally complex because she and I are ‘historians, not hoarders.’ She had been collecting newspapers and clippings since Hitler took over Germany –page one of VE Day in the ‘Dayton Daily News,’–that kind of thing. No one wanted them. I tried. It about killed me to throw them away. She lived through a Depression and WWII and I threw it away.”

I wrote Nancy back and said, from the heart, that she honored her mother by releasing them both from the “stuff” of even the carefully curated materials. “You dealt with them with tenderness even as you put them away into history,” I explained, and said these hard words that I know are tough truths to admit: No one needs these papers and books now. They are digitally archived. Unless they are in perfect condition or rare editions, no library will take them.

It’s hard to accept that stuff we treasured is not a treasure for others.

Other have their have their own stories to tell. The future doesn’t always leave much room for the past.

It’s what old people think, and I say this as a woman in her sixties. While I think it’s simply fascinating to sit down and thumb through pages of LIFE magazines from the year I was born, for example, I no longer expect anybody younger than I am even to pretend they think it’s fun.

It’s easy to say “She’s a hoarder” about somebody we don’t like.

And it’s easy to say “He’s a collector” about somebody we do like.

About ourselves, however, we’ll say something like, “it’s true, I am an archivist.”

(That “what I happen to ‘archive’ are tablecloths, napkins, tea towels and table runners, all of which are rarely, meaning never, ironed and pretty much remain randomly stuffed into a dark cabinet” is the part we leave out.)

I have made literal the idea of “material” and materiality by clinging to my cache of fabric.

But getting rid of our stuff makes us feel immaterial, and that’s one reason we don’t like to do it.

James Lattin, the friend I mentioned earlier who will never have a screw loose-—and who also happens to be Robert A. Magowan Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business-—assigns almost talismanic power to certain pieces of property: “You know the portkeys in the Harry Potter series? A magical object that instantly transports the person who touches it to a specific location? Well, old baby clothes are like a portkey to the past. The touch and the feel make those old memories more immediate and more tangible. It’s like a tool for augmenting and intensifying those old memories.”

But do we want to be the gatekeepers and key-holders of the past, especially when the past is shared with others who are no longer with us? Those keys, and the rings that hold them, can turn into heavy chains, however, and no longer represent merely healthy ties that bind.

Judith Wenger cleaned out her late sister’s condo after she died and told me, “I cried ugly. What should I do with my late sister’s three diplomas? She had no children and neither did I. What else could I do but let them go?”

This wasn’t Judith’s first encounter with the process of clearing out after loved ones died. She explained, “When I cleaned out my parents’ places (first a senior apartment, then assisted living), we sibs took things that had meaning. It made me sad, but it also taught me to downsize my own life.”

My brother and I had a similar experience when going through my father’s stuff after he passed away. Although my brother has kids who loved their grandpa, my brother and I made the choice to be the last ones to touch anything we knew that nobody else would respect, understand, or care about. I never regretted those decisions. Better, we thought, that two people who loved him should have been the last one to touch these items; I didn’t like the idea of having strangers judging his old ties or pajamas at thrift shops.

I kept an old frame, a couple of pots (now resting in peace with their iron brethren, because nothing lasts forever), a few books, and a few of his ties (I judged them as best).

The idea that somebody will have to go through my stuff now makes me think twice, Judith-like. Any purchase must offer immediate satisfaction because the last thing I want is to do at the end of my life is leave behind me a legacy of tchotchkes.

We should all get those colored-paper circle stickers and put them on the backs of stuff (paintings, photos, knick-knacks) indicating “This goes to the Whitney Museum,” “This goes to Goodwill,” and “This can be the first thing on the dumpster and I’m sorry you even have to look it.”

Source: Psychology Today

What Religion Can Tell Us About a Well-lived Life

Gillian McCann and Gitte Bechsgaard wrote . . . . . . . . .

When determining why religious people tend to be healthier, both mentally and physically, certain connections can be easily understood. The links between the community that is often provided by religious affiliation and better health are more and more well known. The work of psychologists like Susan Pinker has argued for the buffering influence of community and human contact and its connection with longevity. However, other vital contributions that are made to well-being by religion are often less clear.

Religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions provide overarching world views. These help us to orient in the many situations we may come up against in the course of their lives. These beliefs, which are often developed in childhood, are not necessarily front of mind or even conscious much of the time, but they have important implications for well-being and a well-lived life.

Pleasure versus purpose

Spiritual traditions have a great deal to say about what constitutes the “Good Life.” As we have mentioned before on this blog, spiritual traditions often have a very different approach to happiness than secular ones. Happiness, as with so many words, ends up a challenge to define. This is because ideas of happiness lead directly into a larger conception of our understanding of a well-lived life. This varies a great deal depending on your worldview. Is the Good Life one based on personal pleasure? Or is it a life spent in service to others?

Much of mainstream public discourse on the Good Life has largely been hijacked by commerce and travel companies. It is presented to us as someone lounging on the beach or playing golf. It is depicted as a life that is centered around the individual and their amusement. Essentially this is the hedonist worldview—that freedom from work and entangling relationships constitutes happiness. But does this really lead to the sense of a fulfilled life?

It turns out no, it doesn’t. In her ongoing work on meaning versus happiness, Emily Esfahani Smith argues that pillars of happiness are related to eudaimonia. This is a Greek term that refers to an overall sense of well-being rather than fleeting happiness. This way of approaching life encompasses ideas of meaning and purpose nor simply referring to changing emotional states.

Eudaimonia does not presuppose a life free of struggle and strain. Esfahani Smith makes an important point that while, for instance, having children may lead to stress, it is ultimately one of the key sources of meaning for many people. Standing up and fighting for a cause may be extremely inconvenient and often discouraging but provides for a sense of contributing to society and of meaning overall.

Research indicates what may at first appear to be counterintuitive to many who are constantly bombarded by ads for resort vacations and lotteries. If we look at occupations that show the most satisfaction, they consistently include those who work in “helping” professions, such as teaching and nursing. The feeling of making an important and meaningful contribution trumps salary in terms of career satisfaction.

Sociologist Émile Durkheim made this argument about the importance of meaning over a century ago. Durkheim, who was himself a mostly secular Jew, was concerned with the waning power of religion and its implications for society. He coined the term anomie to describe a person who had lost all sense of meaning and purpose in their life. Detached from religion, from relationships to others, anomic individuals were, he concluded, dangerous both to themselves and to those around them.

One of the key contributions of religious and spiritual traditions is precisely that they offer a sense of meaning and purpose. This outlook fosters resilience and a deeper feeling of satisfaction. It places all the events of human life within a larger pattern and the sense that each individual life is valuable. Religious people often frame experiences as meaningful, even when they are challenging. This other-oriented approach offers a very different interpretation of what we mean when we say “a Good Life.”

Source: Psychology Today

How to Make this Winter Not Totally Suck, According to Psychologists

Sigal Samuel wrote . . . . . . . . .

I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re probably dreading this winter. We know it’s going to be harder to socialize outdoors as the weather gets colder. We also know there’s probably going to be a surge in new Covid-19 infections. Many of us are feeling anxious about how we’re going to make it through the lonely, bleak months ahead.

I see a lot of people trying to cope with this anxiety by drumming up one-off solutions. Buy a fire pit! Better yet, buy a whole house! Those may be perfectly fine ideas, as far as they go — but I’d like to suggest a more effective way to think about reducing your suffering and increasing your happiness this winter.

Instead of thinking about the myriad negative feelings you want to avoid and the myriad things you can buy or do in service of that, think about a single organizing principle that is highly effective at generating positive feelings across the board: Shift your focus outward.

“Studies show that anything we can do to direct our attention off of ourselves and onto other people or other things is usually productive and makes us happier,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California Riverside and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. “A lot of life’s problems are caused by too much self-focus and self-absorption, and we often focus too much on the negatives about ourselves.”

Rather than fixating on our inner worlds and woes, we can strive to promote what some psychologists call “small self.” Virginia Sturm, who directs the Clinical Affective Neuroscience lab at the University of California San Francisco, defines this as “a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you.”

This easy-to-remember principle is like an emotional Swiss Army knife: Open it up and you’ll find a bunch of different practices that research shows can cut through mental distress. They’re useful anytime, and might be especially helpful during the difficult winter ahead (though they’re certainly no panacea for broader problems like mass unemployment or a failed national pandemic response).

The practices involve cultivating different states — social connectedness, a clear purpose, inspiration — but all have one thing in common: They get you to focus on something outside yourself.

A sense of social connectedness

Some of the practices are about cultivating a sense of social connectedness. Decades of psychology research have taught us that this is a key to happiness.

In fact, Lyubomirsky said, “I think it is the key to happiness.”

That’s what Harvard’s Study of Adult Development discovered by following the lives of hundreds of people over 80 years, from the time they were teenagers all the way into their 90s. The massive longitudinal study revealed that the people who ended up happiest were the ones who really leaned into good relationships with family, friends, and community. Close relationships were better predictors of long and pleasant lives than money, IQ, or fame.

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 to 2004, summed it up like so: “The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Other studies have found evidence that social connections boost not only our mental health but also our physical health, helping to combat everything from memory loss to fatal heart attacks.

During our pandemic winter, you can socialize in person by, yes, gathering around a fire pit or maybe doubling your bubble. But there are other ways to make you feel you’re connected to others in a wider web. A great option is to perform an act of kindness — like donating to charity, or volunteering to read to a child or an older person online.

“I do a lot of research on kindness, and it turns out people who help others end up feeling more connected and become happier,” Lyubomirsky told me.

Lyubomirsky’s research shows that committing any type of kind act can make you happier, though you should choose something that fits your personality (for example, if you don’t like kids, then reading to them might not be for you). You may also want to vary what you do, because once you get used to doing something, you start taking it for granted and don’t get as much of a boost from it. By contrast, people who vary their kind acts show an increase in happiness immediately afterward and up to one month later. So you might call to check up on a lonely friend one day, deliver groceries to an older neighbor the next day, and make a donation the day after that.

A sense of purpose

Other practices are about cultivating a sense of purpose. Psychologists have found that having a clear purpose is one of the most effective ways to cope with isolation.

Steve Cole, a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles, studies interventions designed to help people cope with loneliness. He’s found that the ones that work tend to focus not on decreasing loneliness, but on increasing people’s sense of purpose. Recalling one pilot program that paired isolated older people with elementary school kids whom they’re asked to tutor and look out for, Cole told Vox, “Secretly, this is an intervention for the older people.”

Philosophers have long noted the fortifying effects of a clear sense of purpose. “Nietzsche said if you find purpose in your suffering, you can tolerate all the pain that comes with it,” Jack Fong, a sociologist who researches solitude at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, told me. “It’s when people don’t see a purpose in their suffering that they freak out.”

Experienced solitaries confirm this. Billy Barr, who’s been living alone in an abandoned mining shack high up in the Rocky Mountains for almost 50 years, says we should all keep track of something. In his case, it’s the environment. How high is the snow today? What animals appeared this month? For decades, he’s been tracking the answers to these questions, and his records have actually influenced climate change science.

Now, he suggests that people get through the pandemic by participating in a citizen science project such as CoCoRaHS, which tracks rainfall.

“I would definitely recommend people doing that,” he told WAMU. “You get a little rain gauge, put it outside, and you’re part of a network where there’s thousands of other people doing the same thing as you, the same time of the day as you’re doing it.” (Notice, again, that this is really about sensing you’re part of the larger world around you.)

Other citizen science projects are looking for laypeople to classify wild animals caught on camera or predict the spread of Covid-19.

If citizen science isn’t your jam, find something else that gives you a sense of purpose, whether it’s writing that novel you’ve been kicking around for years, signing up to volunteer with a mutual aid group, or whatever else.

A sense of inspiration

Finally, some practices are about cultivating a sense of inspiration — which can take the form of gratitude, curiosity, or awe.

Regularly feeling gratitude helps protect us from stress and depression.

“When you feel grateful, your mind turns its attention to what is perhaps the greatest source of resilience for most humans: other humans,” David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University and the author of Emotional Success, told me. “By reminding you that you’re not alone — that others have contributed to your well-being — it reduces stress.”

So one thing you can do this winter is try gratitude journaling. This simple practice — jotting down things you’re grateful for once or twice a week — has gained popularity over the past few years. But studies show there are more and less effective ways to do it. Researchers say it’s better to write in detail about one particular thing, really savoring it, than to dash off a superficial list of things. They recommend that you try to focus on people you’re grateful to, because that’s more impactful than focusing on things, and that you focus on events that surprised you, because they generally elicit stronger feelings of thankfulness.

Another practice is to write a letter of gratitude to someone. Research shows it significantly increases your levels of gratitude, even if you never actually send the letter. And the effects on the brain can last for months. In one study, subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing expressed more thankfulness and showed more activity in their pregenual anterior cingulate cortex — an area involved in predicting the outcomes of our actions — three months later.

Feeling a sense of curiosity or awe about the world around you is likewise shown to boost emotional well-being.

“Awe makes us feel like our problems are very trivial in the big scheme of things,” Lyubomirsky said. “The idea that you are this tiny speck in the universe gives you this bigger-picture perspective, which is really helpful when you’re too self-focused over your problems.”

For example, a study recently published in the journal Emotion investigated the effects of “awe walks.” Over a period of eight weeks, 60 participants took weekly 15-minute walks outdoors. Those who were encouraged to seek out moments of awe during their walks ended up showing more of the “small self” mindset, greater increases in daily positive emotions, and greater decreases in daily distress over time, compared to a control group who walked without being primed to seek out awe.

“What we show here is that a very simple intervention — essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward — can lead to significant improvements in emotional wellbeing,” said Sturm, the lead author.

So, bottom line: When the world between your two ears is as bleak as the howling winter outside, shifting your attention outward can be powerfully beneficial for your mental health. And hey, even in the dead of winter, a 15-minute awe walk outdoors is probably something you can do.

Source: Vox

Health and Happiness Depend on Each Other, Psychological Science Says

Good health and a happy outlook on life may seem like equally worthy yet independent goals. A growing body of research, however, bolsters the case that a happy outlook can have a very real impact on your physical well-being.

New research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that both online and in-person psychological interventions—tactics specifically designed to boost subjective well-being—have positive effects on self-reported physical health. The online and in-person interventions were equally effective.

“Our research is one of the first randomized controlled trials to suggest that increasing the psychological well-being even of generally healthy adults can have benefits to their physical health.”Kostadin Kushlev [Georgetown University]

“Though prior studies have shown that happier people tend to have better cardiovascular health and immune-system responses than their less happy counterparts,” said Kostadin Kushlev, a professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology and one of the authors of the paper, “our research is one of the first randomized controlled trials to suggest that increasing the psychological well-being even of generally healthy adults can have benefits to their physical health.”

Intervention for Healthy Outcomes

Over the course of six months, Kushlev and his colleagues at the University of Virginia and the University of British Columbia examined how improving the subjective well-being of people who were not hospitalized or otherwise undergoing medical treatment affected their physical health.

A group of 155 adults between the ages of 25 and 75 were randomly assigned either to a wait-list control condition or a 12-week positive psychological intervention that addressed three different sources of happiness: the “Core Self,” the “Experiential Self,” and the “Social Self.”

The first 3 weeks of the program focused on the Core Self, helping individuals identify their personal values, strengths, and goals. The next 5 weeks focused on the Experiential Self, covering emotion regulation and mindfulness. This phase also gave participants tools to identify maladaptive patterns of thinking. The final 4 weeks of the program addressed the Social Self, teaching techniques to cultivate gratitude, foster positive social interactions, and engage more with their community.

The program, called Enduring Happiness and Continued Self-Enhancement (ENHANCE), consisted of weekly modules either led by a trained clinician or completed individually using a customized online platform. None of the modules focused on promoting physical health or health behaviors, such as sleep, exercise, or diet.

Each module featured an hour-long lesson with information and exercises; a weekly writing assignment, such as journaling; and an active behavioral component, such as guided meditation.

“All of the activities were evidence-based tools to increase subjective well-being,” Kushlev noted.

When the program concluded, the participants were given individual evaluations and recommendations of which modules would be most effective at improving their happiness in the long term. Three months after the conclusion of the trial, researchers followed up with the participants to evaluate their well-being and health.

A Happy Future

Participants who received the intervention reported increasing levels of subjective well-being over the course of the 12-week program. They also reported fewer sick days than control participants throughout the program and 3 months after it ended.

The online mode of administering the program was shown to be as effective as the in-person mode led by trained facilitators.

“These results speak to the potential of such interventions to be scaled in ways that reach more people in environments such as college campuses to help increase happiness and promote better mental health among students,” Kushlev said.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Today’s Comic

Hedonism Leads to Happiness

Relaxing on the sofa or savoring a delicious meal: Enjoying short-term pleasurable activities that don’t lead to long-term goals contributes at least as much to a happy life as self-control, according to new research from the University of Zurich and Radboud University in the Netherlands. The researchers therefore argue for a greater appreciation of hedonism in psychology.

The capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment without getting distracted by intrusive thoughts contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control. (Image:

We all set ourselves long-term goals from time to time, such as finally getting into shape, eating less sugar or learning a foreign language. Research has devoted much time to finding out how we can reach these goals more effectively. The prevailing view is that self-control helps us prioritize long-term goals over momentary pleasure and that if you are good at self-control, this will usually result in a happier and more successful life.

“It’s time for a rethink,” says Katharina Bernecker, researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich. “Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure.” That’s because Bernecker’s new research shows that people’s capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control.

Distraction disrupts pleasure

Bernecker and her colleague Daniela Becker of Radboud University developed a questionnaire to measure respondents’ capacity for hedonism, i.e. their ability to focus on their immediate needs and indulge in and enjoy short-term pleasures. They used the questionnaire to find out whether people differ in their capacity to pursue hedonic goals in a variety of contexts, and whether this ability is related to well-being.

They found that certain people get distracted by intrusive thoughts in moments of relaxation or enjoyment by thinking about activities or tasks that they should be doing instead. “For example, when lying on the couch you might keep thinking of the sport you are not doing,” says Becker. “Those thoughts about conflicting long-term goals undermine the immediate need to relax.” On the other hand, people who can fully enjoy themselves in those situations tend to have a higher sense of well-being in general, not only in the short term, and are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, among other things.

More isn’t always better

“The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another,” says Bernecker. “Our research shows that both are important and can complement each other in achieving well-being and good health. It is important to find the right balance in everyday life.”

Unfortunately, simply sitting about more on the sofa, eating more good food and going to the pub with friends more often won’t automatically make for more happiness. “It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option,” says Bernecker. “But really enjoying one’s hedonic choice isn’t actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts.”

Conscious planning of downtime

This is currently a topical issue with more people working from home, as the environment where they normally rest is suddenly associated with work. “Thinking of the work you still need to do can lead to more distracting thoughts at home, making you less able to rest,” says Bernecker.

So what can you do to enjoy your downtime more? More research is needed, but the researchers suspect that consciously planning and setting limits to periods of enjoyment could help to separate them more clearly from other activities, allowing pleasure to take place more undisturbed.

Source: University of Zurich